A Y Combinator alum on how the startup hustle came at a steep cost—to her mental health

May 11, 2022, 12:15 PM UTC

The following essay was contributed by Trisha Bantigue, CEO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based formal dress marketplace, Queenly.

What was your GMV last quarter? How much are you burning each month? Who are the engineering candidates in your pipeline? How are your KPIs right now? Do you have any key IP that gives you a technical moat? What is the actual addressable market for this type of industry? What is your exit strategy?

After two brutal fundraising rounds, these are the investor questions that are painfully ingrained in my brain and depressingly etched in my soul. The fact that I’m still standing and confidently pitching my startup everywhere, after so many back-to-back rejections and obstacles, is a true testament to the grit that every founder is required to have. You have to get past all the “email me when you have a lead”, the “too early for us”, the “market’s not big enough”, and all the doors being callously slammed in your face. They say, “you just have to stick it out” and “keep pushing forward”. That’s the founder mentality that is perpetuated in Silicon Valley.

After three years of being a startup founder, I’ve been asked numerous questions from so many different VCs, angel investors, podcast hosts, and journalists, about how I’m supposed to take my company to a billion dollar valuation—but none have ever been about my mental health. 

In 2019, when we first launched Queenly, an online marketplace dedicated to democratizing the formalwear industry, I was your typical bright-eyed, naive, hungry founder that was ready to take on the world. Of course, I knew that starting your own business was going to be hard, and no one knows a hard life like I do. Coming from a poor immigrant background and being an independent student at 17 with no familial support, I was used to life’s trials and tribulations, and had become an expert at pushing my trauma aside in order to survive. The startup life—notorious for attracting workaholic-types—was calling out to me, and I willingly took on the challenge.

Trisha Bantigue is the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based formal dress marketplace Queenly
Trisha Bantigue is the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based formal dress marketplace Queenly.
Courtesy of Trisha Bantigue

Even though our pre-seed round was five straight months of hell, we were still grateful that in February 2020, we successfully raised almost a million dollars. I was relieved, and we were excited to deploy the capital to further grow our metrics and improve our product. Then, on March 15, 2020, the whole country went to a full stop and the COVID-19 lockdowns started. 

Panic. Confusion. Hopelessness. Fear. Everything came crashing down on me and I didn’t know what the next step was. My co-founder, Kathy Zhou, and I fell into a sea of depression for the next couple of months, as we realized that all the formal events in the U.S. were being canceled left and right. We had just pitched to investors that if they believed in us, we would grow this business and exponentially grow their investment. How could we do that when there were suddenly no formal events for our customers to buy a dress for? How could we advertise, when there was a global pandemic and people were getting sick/dying from the virus? We did not want to be tone deaf in our message, but we also didn’t want to die off as a company. We didn’t know what to do or where to even begin with our business. My anxiety shot through the roof, and I started to feel like a failure. 

After a series of various scrappy solutions to remediate the effects of COVID-19 on our company, we finally got through the first year of the pandemic, while selling half a million dollars worth of dresses. Consequently, we got accepted into Y Combinator and came out as one of TechCrunch’s favorite companies to watch out for in the Winter 2021 batch. Soon after, we announced we were closing our seed round and that it was being led by Andreessen Horowitz. That summer, I got engaged to my soul mate and I got to hire the A team of my dreams. And to just top it all off, I was chosen to be the Art & Style cover for the Forbes 30 Under 30 2022 list. I was getting everything I’d always wanted in my life, and yet, I still felt so empty inside. 

The start of this year was a bit rocky: we started to get hit by some copyright trolls and received push back from the old guards in the formalwear industry. More than 5,000 of our links were abruptly taken down by Google because a copyright troll decided to abuse their DMCA takedown policy. This resulted in our search traffic being hit drastically, down 50%. We started losing some of our boutique store partners; dress designers were threatening not to sell to boutique stores if they worked with us. There’s a reason why they say that nine out of 10 startups fail, and it’s because there are no protective measures for them in the beginning or any structured step-by-step guide for when you are disrupting an industry. I told myself: “It’s okay. Everything’s fine, this is nothing I can’t handle,” and I also kept reinforcing to myself, “I just have to keep pushing through every single obstacle and I just have to keep getting stronger.” Then, I heard the news of someone I knew, Cheslie Kryst (Miss USA 2019), committing suicide in New York City and my heart abruptly dropped to the floor. Tears began to flood my eyes and I couldn’t breathe, like I was just hit by a train. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that someone like her would ever do such a thing. Never did I think that this was possible for someone so accomplished. I started to question the purpose of everything I was doing and everything that I was. 

I started to get paranoid as my deep, dark depression started to creep up at me once again. I was engulfed in sadness and I couldn’t shake it off. I began to feel grief that I haven’t felt in 20 years. That’s when I knew it was time—time for me to get the help that I desperately needed for me to take care of myself and to take care of my company. Although I have been seeing a therapist for the past two years, I knew that what I needed was medication. So finally, I asked my therapist to refer me to a psychiatrist, and I was prescribed an antidepressant. 

Today, mental health awareness is a lot more prevalent, but I don’t think we talk about it enough within the tech industry. It’s something that we brush off, as it’s “not sexy enough” to talk about for extended periods of time. Even though it’s not a secret that founders are two times more likely to experience depression and to commit suicide, the whole industry just keeps turning a blind eye to it. It doesn’t sell. It doesn’t excite founders to build unicorns. And even if it’s mentioned, it’s sugar-coated so much that you just gloss over it and focus on the happy parts. It simply hasn’t been enough. 

I’ve had endless nights of anxiety-filled thoughts and mornings where depression was so heavy that I couldn’t get up. All I do is push it all down, every single day, so I can put my best foot forward for my team. That’s the thing about being this glorified startup founder, is that they never really tell you that the majority of the cost is your own mental health. You sacrifice so many things for the slim possibility of success, that so many foolishly hold on to until they no longer have anything to give. The hustle mentality has taught us to keep moving forward, but it never taught us to take a pause. 

Opening up about my own mental health has been a fairly daunting thing, but I decided to be more outspoken about it to help remove the stigma. I know that many other founders have felt the same way, and may still be in the same boat. We are human beings with emotions, traumas, and triggers, and if you want to make your company succeed, the best thing you can do is to prioritize taking care of yourself first. No one can run a company effectively when your own glass is not filled and you’re not at 100%. 

I want this to serve as a wake up call to the industry, to start seeing founders as human beings instead of startup robots who tirelessly work on growing a business with no repercussions on their own mental health—or their own lives. I want to encourage those who are in a position of power, who have a platform with a wide reach, who have influence over so many people in tech, to speak up on this topic more often and to provide more support. We need to make sure this doesn’t stay a taboo, or we will lose so many more incredible founders to depression and suicide. My hope is that my message can truly be heard, and that things will change for the better so we remove the toxicity within the industry that we all care about and love.

Jackson Fordyce curated the deals section of today’s newsletter. You can submit a deal for the Term Sheet newsletter here.

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